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This essay will look at how the individual learning needs of young children are reflected in today’s education system, examining the continuum of provision within this system, looking at inclusion and the debate surrounding this issue. It will discuss the continuum of need, concentrating more specifically on the experience of children affected by Autistic Spectrum Disorder, in order to demonstrate and discuss the merits and disadvantages of the continuum of educational provision available, critically reflecting on the learning environment that would best meet the needs of this group.

This essay will evaluate current policy and practice in mainstream and specialist provisions and the challenges and implications for early year’s practitioners, examining how multi agency working and interaction between practitioners, children and families supports individual children’s learning needs. It is important firstly, to define the terms ‘continuum of need’ and ‘continuum of provision’.

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The former refers to the concept that special educational needs occupy a range of difficulties, from the minor and temporary to the profound and permanent and it is now increasingly accepted that the special educational needs of individual children may not remain static, but may change with growth, maturation and educational progress.

Children, seemingly with the same difficulties, may occupy different points on the continuum of needs and may require different forms of provision to enable them to gain the greatest benefit from their education. These differences in provision for individual learning needs’, can be referred to as a ‘continuum of provision’ and include mainstream, mainstream with specialist adjustments, co-located, comprising of both mainstream and specialist provision on the same site, and specialist settings, (Scottish Executive, 2008).

Official recognition of the existence of a continuum of needs, incorporating mild, moderate, severe and profound needs, and provision required to meet these needs, came in the form of The Code of Practice and the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Need (DfE, 1994) influenced by the Warnock Report (Warnock, 1978), (Marsh, 2000). A major review of the education of children with special needs was carried out by the Warnock committee (Warnock, 1978) and recommendations for improvement were made.

These recommendations have greatly influenced legislation on the education of children with special needs, from the Education Act (1981) to the present. The 1981 Act introduced the concept of identifying the educational needs and difficulties of the child through multidisciplinary assessments, leading to the production of a legal document, a Statement of special educational needs, specifically describing a child’s needs and the provision required to meet them.

It also stipulated the need for inclusion, aimed at the integration of disabled children into mainstream schools, and the introduction of the right of parents to have their wishes taken into account in decisions regarding educational provision for their child. The restructuring of education in the 1980’s (Education Reform Act, 1988), including the establishment of the national curriculum for all pupils in mainstream schools, had implications for the responsibility and provision for the education of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN).

The 1981 Act was superseded by The Education Act (1993), which facilitated change for the education of children with special needs in England and Wales. A feature of this act was to broaden the scope of The Code of Practice (DfE, 1994), which set out a staged approach to assessment and provision based on the five stages recommended by the Warnock Report (1978), giving practical guidance to LEA’s and schools on how to achieve their respective responsibilities (Callias, 2001).

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (1994), was adopted by the World Conference on Special Needs Education in the hope that the spirit of its provisions and recommendations would guide governments and organizations. The Framework for Action stated that legislation should recognize the principle of equality of opportunity for children and reinforced the notion that all pupils should attend their local community mainstream school unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), (1995) set out two key duties, to ensure that that no disabled child is treated less favourably and to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children. The Education Act (1996) made no substantial changes regarding SEN, other than the amendments made by The Code of Practice and the DDA. The Government publication Excellence for All Children – Meeting Special Educational Needs (1997), set out a clear strategy and commitment for improving the standards for pupils with SEN.

Meeting Special Educational Needs – A Programme of Action (1998) and The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (2001), which amended the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), strengthen the rights of children and young people with special educational needs to be educated in mainstream settings. The revised Special Educational Needs Code of Practice (2002), provided practical advice to Local Education Authorities (LEA’s), maintained schools, early education settings and others, on carrying out their statutory duties to identify, assess and make provision for pupil’s special educational needs.

The Government Green Paper Every Child Matters (2003), described a commitment to partnership and a multi-agency framework within the Children’s Services proposals and Removing Barriers to Achievement – The Government’s Strategy for SEN (2004), was the government’s vision for giving children with special needs and disabilities the opportunity to succeed (Wigan Counsil, 2008).

The government believe that the Disabled Children Review and it’s report Aiming High for Disabled Children: Better Support for Families (2007), along with Every Child Matters (2003), will take us closer to achieving our aim of ensuring that every disabled child can have the best possible start in life, and provide the support they and their families need to make equality of opportunity a reality.

Evidently, in the last thirty years considerable changes have taken place in education, largely based upon inclusion and reconceptualising special educational needs, from the medical model of disability, which sees the individual as the problem, being passive or dependant, to the social model, that sees the problem as society’s barriers, rather than the individuals condition. The social model of disability empowers disabled people to challenge society to remove those barriers (Mavrou et al, 2000).

One key debate has existed since the findings of the Warnock Report (1978), having identified children with special educational needs, where is provision best made, mainstream or special schools? Low (1997) argues that the term inclusion and “inclusivism” means more than the simple integration of disabled people in mainstream schools and society. It is an ideal that considers all children as a whole and focuses on changes in schools and systems, rather than on re-placement of the child from the special to mainstream setting.

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